The first line of a Sports Illustrated piece detailing Bennet Omalu’s characterization of football as “child abuse” falsely labels him as the “doctor credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy.” The article goes downhill from there.
“Someday there will be a district attorney who will prosecute for child abuse [on the gridiron], and it will succeed,” Omalu told the New York Press Club. “It is the definition of child abuse.”
Only it isn’t.
A JAMA Neurology study published last month of nearly 4,000 mid-century Wisconsin high school football players found “no statistically significant harmful association of playing football” relating to depression, alcoholism, or cognitive issues.
A similar study by the Mayo Clinic on Minnesota high school players reported similar results. “Our findings suggest that playing American football in high school between 1946 and 1956 did not increase the long-term risk of developing dementia, [Parkinson’s Disease], or [Lou Gehrig’s Disease] later in life,” the Mayo Clinic doctors, who admit their findings contradicted their incoming hypothesis, noted in 2012. “Indeed, the frequency of [Parkinson’s Disease] and [Lou Gehrig’s Disease] was lower in the football group than in the band, glee club, and choir group; however, the 2 groups did not differ statistically. Although the dementia frequency was higher in the football group (3% vs 1.4%), the difference was not significant.”
A much smaller pilot study of youth football players actually found cognitive improvement by players over the course of a season. “The primary finding of this study is that there were no observed impairments in selected clinical measures of neurologic function in these 10 youth football players tested before and after a 12-week season,” the group’s Journal of Child Neurology article pointed out. “There were, in fact, significant improvements in some measures of postural stability, oculomotor performance, and neurocognitive function.”
One can forgive Sports Illustrated for saying that people credit Omalu with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease referred to by that name in the medical literature long before the doctor’s birth. At least one person does credit him with discovering CTE: Bennet Omalu. But playing stenographer to a pathologist masquerading as a brain expert who repeatedly makes false claims comes as a harder transgression to absolve.